The Three Levels of Work

May 03, 2017

by Jeff Koeze, CEO, Koeze Co.

Koeze Company sets pay rates based on market surveys, and I review annually job descriptions and pay rates for dozens of jobs, from blue collar to corporate CEO.  I’ve noticed, along with my HR director, that responsibilities, functions, and pay rates seem to fall into three bands or clusters.  We’ve speculated that, notwithstanding the wide variety of different tasks that people are asked to do, there are different ways of working or of approaching work, and some underlying, common skills that are required in each band or cluster of job, regardless of the tasks.

Work at the basic level is built around tasks.  The job, regardless of what it is, consists mostly of doing a pre-defined set of tasks in a pre-defined way.  Performance consists of getting it done in the expected time frame with a sufficient level of skill.  This is a common element of most blue collar jobs (although, there are some white collar jobs that might be close).

At the next level, which is the beginning of management, and roughly where one moves from hourly wages to a salary, specific tasks are supplemented by another kind of consciousness, mode, or attitude about work.  When in this “management mode,” the focus is not on the task and getting it done, rather on asking questions about the task such as: Why are we doing this task?  Is there a better, cheaper, faster way of doing this task?  Who should be doing this task?  How does this task fit with other tasks?  How important is this task or set of tasks compared to some others (Argyris calls these “double-loop” questions).

Answering these questions calls new skills into play: analysis, inquiry, research, systems thinking, communication, imagination, creativity, organization, and prioritization.  The list of skills is long, and varies from job-to-job, but these are higher-order skills.

The jobs at the third level involve more a change of scope and emphasis than a change in nature.  The double-loop questions are about bigger, more complicated issues.  From “Should we re-organize this department?” to “Should we sell this company?”  From “Should we add a person in the Cleveland office?” to “Should we build an organization in Europe?”  From “How does this task fit with other tasks?” to “How does our organization fit our current societal or political priorities?”

It’s a lot like Football. Applying this notion to the world of professional football might help clarify my argument, as well as provide some further comparisons as I consider the implications of this three-level look at jobs.

The player on the field represents the first level: a person with well-defined tasks and fairly clear performance expectations.  Such a player might be exceptionally good at what he does, but not be able to think and converse abstractly about his own performance, or that of other players.

People who can think and communicate effectively sometimes become coaches.  At the professional level, there are often different levels of coaches for a team.  There are coaches who work with players who play specific positions -- the quarterback coach, for example.  These coaches often report to coaches who manage the activities of the offense – the offensive coordinator – and the defense – the defensive coordinator.  These in turn report to the head coach.

Players operate at the basic level and position coaches must cross over to the second level.  Not knowing that much about football, I’m not sure where level three might begin, but there is certainly a difference between being a coach or manager of players and being a coach or manager of coaches, which is what I take the head coach to be.

And in pro-football there is a job which seems to me to be obviously level three: the General Manager (GM) or the team President.  This person, in addition to overseeing the coaches and the players will, among other things, work with or manage the work of those who deal with the team owners, the players’ agents, the players’ families, the people who run the stadiums, the broadcast and print media, representatives of the city, the marketing of the team – anyway, a lot of stuff.  This calls for a range of ability beyond that required of coaches, though certainly less technical knowledge of football.  (Put in Berlin's terms, the team general manager must be a fox; the quarterback coach a hedgehog.)

As one engages with the complex issues at level three, accomplishing specific tasks recedes almost entirely.  Doing is delegated to the greatest extent possible.  Time is taken up in conversations and in meetings, and, if one is to be truly effective, in reading and thinking as well.  Simultaneously, issues of who dominate over issues of what or how.  This is a point that Jim Collins perhaps overdoes a bit in Good to Great, but it is a valid one.  The job is helping to pick and coordinate the team and setting some typically quite broad boundaries on what or how.  All that a blue collar worker might call “real work” is handled by others.  People and ideas utterly replace things and tasks.  Communication, dialog, and conflict management become the active work.  The rest is reading and reflection.

Making the Move Upward.  There is, of course, much to be learned, and many skills to be mastered as a worker moves along this path.  Many resources exist for those on it.  Universities and colleges offer degrees and executive education.  Publishers offer books.  Seminar companies and trade associations offer seminars, training, and certification calls.  Companies conduct their own courses, or hire consultants or executive coaches to help build skills.  This industry has two objectives: (1) teaching the myriad skills necessary to move from level to level, and all the roles to be played at each level, and (2) conceptualizing and formalizing both the skills themselves and  the methods of acquiring them.  If we are going to teach leadership we must first figure out what it consists of, next figure out how to teach that, and then actually arrange for the teaching itself.

Calling-Out the Consequences. This work, and the approach to it, focuses largely on intellectual development.  In my experience this industry pays less attention to the emotional challenges associated with professional transitions, let alone day-to-day work.  Stress and burnout are features of almost any discussion about work, but I’m not sure much effort has been spent identifying the specific sources of this stress as one’s managerial responsibilities increase, or considering the remedies in any systematic way.  What follows is an attempt on my part to at least catalogue some of the sources of negative emotional consequences associated with moving from level one to level three, and offer some thoughts on how to deal with them. The first two I’ll mention, but say little about as they are not part of my experience, though they are important to highlight.

The first is that there are social adjustments to be made as one’s responsibilities, ambitions, power, and abilities increase.  Friends and even spouses who remain lower in the social hierarchy might be lost or thrown away.  (Kennedy comments that this is a common phenomenon among law students.)

The second is that issues of self-confidence and self-identity might arise.  People often, it seems to me, identify themselves as the tasks they complete or the function they perform.  “I’m a machinist.”  Becoming a manager of machinists might entail some loss of identity.  In addition, if being a machinist is consistent with the expectations of your family, your teachers, your neighbors, and ultimately yourself at some level, finding yourself the manager of machinists might raise the question of whether you’ve gotten “out of your league.”

Having been spared these first two sources of stress through birth and arrogance, I’ve got a long list of my own.  First on mine is that, by definition, you must learn to delegate tasks in order to change levels, and also by definition, you must delegate to those who may not be as skilled as you.  After all, you’ve been selected or allowed to move on because you were among the best.  You will see a lot of work—a constant flow of work—that is not up to your standards.  You must decide, somehow, what is good enough, and what isn’t, and what to do about the later.  You must decide, somehow, what shows potential for future leadership, and what to do about that.  You must learn to teach, and learn what it means to be a teacher.  This work is difficult to master, ethically challenging, and, when taken seriously, emotionally demanding.

Second, because the double-loop issues at levels two and three are complex and filled with uncertainty, true successes are difficult to define.  The clarity of short-term, well-defined tasks is replaced with ill-defined clusters of projects in which the most important successes are ambiguous, contingent, and long-term.  On this time scale, apparent victories turn out to be defeats, and vice versa  You still enjoy success, satisfaction, and reward for a job well-done but less often, and with less pride because you see these brief victories for what they are—insignificant in the great scheme of things.  To return to football for a moment, a great tackle is not the same as winning a game, and winning the game is not the same as winning the Superbowl, and winning the Superbowl is not the same as sustaining a profitable franchise over decades.

Third, the work never ends, and the volume of work is truly limitless.  I recall listening to my sister discuss her business with a consultant.  She listed five or six serious issues she faced, and explained that once she got those worked out, everything would become more manageable.  The consultant wisely pointed out that this certainly wasn’t the case – they’d be replaced by five or six more, unless she went out of business.  The consultant might have added that if she was successful and her business grew, there would be 10 or 12 more, dozens more, thousands more.  The only limit to the supply of issues is your own ability to see opportunities and imagine options and alternatives.  In a successful business, one staffed with talented and creative people, the pressure of the imagination is limitless and relentless.

Fourth.  It seems obvious that priority-setting becomes difficult in the level three world.  But on top of the limitless scope and complexity of the work itself, other projects demand attention.  One must manage the mix of level one, two, and three work that one performs.  And manage the growth of the one’s own abilities, and the development and mix of ones’ subordinates.  Not to mention manage the attendant stress.  More on that later…

Fifth, at level three one knows little by direct experience and observation.  Management by walking around is perhaps a way to regain some direct contact with the world of things, with those actually completing defined tasks, and with customers, but even while you are walking and talking and observing you’re only getting glimpses into what is really going on.  Statistically speaking, a small sample of a big reality, and a sample warped and biased by your own unusual presence.  You are deciding or helping to decide important things based on summaries of summaries of reports of reports of reports. The issue, to some extent, becomes one’s ability to effectively deduce and play the odds.

Defenses are NOT Solutions to Ease Stress. Before talking about what to do about this recipe for misery, there are two solutions I warn against.  My management career is unusual in that it consists entirely of being a CEO, but I’d guess that the defenses and compensations used against this emotional instability are fairly typical of others doing level three work.  I see these defenses commonly among my peers, and they are, I believe, dangerous to oneself and to others.

The classic defense is bravado, ruthlessness, and the claiming of certainty in the face of obscurity.  This is hubris, the stuff of the tragedy and failure.  My father wisely warned me constantly against a related fault, that of “believing your own bullshit.”  In this family of defenses are emphasis on simple slogans and simple measures, increasing share-holder value being the current end-all and be-all oversimplification and excuse for corruption.

Greed—including materialism and social-climbing—is the second defense.  I suppose a certain number of people pursue career advancement because they desire wealth, power, and social position.  But I also sense that a certain number pursue work that they find rewarding only to say, when it turns to ashes in their mouth at some point, “Well, it must be worth it: look at how nice my house is and what a nice car I have and what I can buy for my family.”  And there is plenty of reassurance from society-at-large for this view of things.

Before moving to solutions, there is another defense I should mention: failure.  Failure, to my mind, does not consist in intentionally stepping off the path, or in understanding that one is not equipped in some way to succeed at whatever the next level demands.  To give an example of the later (or maybe both), I realized that I lacked the physical endurance and capacity to handle the pressure that it takes to be an effective trial attorney, which was the only law practice that appealed to me.  And, hence, I’ve never practiced.

Sometimes, though, I think that managers simply shrink back.  They may cling to task work when that is not called for, passively resist change, avoid conflict, or withdraw in other ways that eventually sabotage their careers.  Unwilling to face their limitations, their fears, or lack of confidence, unable to admit doubt or weakness, they essentially freeze, put their head down, and hope that ignoring the issues will make them go away.  As one of my college roommates used to say in our all too frequent moments of academic crisis, “Just go to sleep and it all goes away.”

Managing the Move Upward.  So, what would I recommend to my fellow dwellers in level three, or to those undergoing the trauma of moving in that direction?  These thoughts are no more original than my description of the problem, but I’ve used them all to some success so far.

Breathing.  Simple breathing exercises help one deal with stress.  So can yoga, t’ai chi, and meditation.

Friendship.  Or, the substitute found in support groups or professional counseling.  This is a universal recommendation for dealing with human challenges.  I participate in a couple of CEO groups that attempt to provide a way to discuss the challenges of the job.  Unfortunately, we are usually no more willing to confess our doubts to each other than we are to our shareholders, boards, or subordinates.  Elaborate defensive thinking and acting is the order of the day.  Nevertheless, I believe that it is impossible to face these issues in one’s own head—one requires conversation, perspective, and distance.  Cultivating relationships that allow for such conversation is difficult, but mandatory.

One side comment:  Sometimes defensiveness prevents relationships from developing.  But sometimes it is guilt over whining.  This drives CEO’s together.  Who really wants to hear me complain?  Can I really deserve much empathy?  Money doesn’t buy happiness, but we all think it should.

Find a Source of Satisfaction.  In an article about the migration of manufacturing jobs going overseas, a man who made parts for rail cars discusses the rewards of his work:  “I was making something.  I had something to show for myself at the end of the day.”  He’d thought about taking various white-collar jobs, working behind a desk, but “That’s just not my cup of tea...hands-on is what I like to do.  I like to work hard.  Growing up, if there was work to do, you did it.”

These words suggest at least two attitudes to me.  The first is that work behind a desk isn’t really work at all.  And for some, the loss of the physical rewards of work, and the sense of doing “real work” is difficult.  But even for those who have gotten past that, or never felt it, even in many white collar basic level jobs the focus on tasks does allow you to feel that you have something to show for yourself at the end of the day.  The journal entries are finished, the orders have been taken, and receiving the shipments has been arranged.  The rock may roll back down the hill overnight, but you’re confident that you can push it back up by 5 PM and forget about it.

That sense is lost almost completely by the time your job becomes dominated by level three demands.  You’re simply never finished.

So where is satisfaction to be found?  One place is, of course, in money, status, power.  Perhaps, the commonest place.  But I think two more solid and lasting forms of satisfaction are available.  One might be called “grace under pressure.”  It consists in a sense of confidence that arises from having chosen to take on more difficult challenges, from having cultivated the character necessary to face the attendant risks and uncertainly, from learning new things and building new skills, and from, to be trite, doing your best.

The second part is in contributing to the development of others; see them grow, test themselves, face challenges, increase their capacity to understand and to choose.  This is the great reward of the shift from tasks to people.

Take Care of Yourself.  You’re no good to anybody if you are unhappy, unhealthy, unbalanced.  Regardless of the demands, there must be an absolute priority on maintaining yourself.  If you can’t do the job and protect your own health and well-being, face that, and give up the former.

Stress-reduction is a part of taking care of yourself, as is diet and exercise.  Spiritual development is a part.  Reconnecting with the physical rewards of work and of completing tasks might be a part.  Gardening, mowing your lawn, painting your own house, sailing, archery, the list is long.  For me, continuing to read and talk about books is vital.

One caution, based on a mistake I’ve made: baking for the school bake sale might be helpful for one who enjoys cooking.  Running the school bake sale gets you all of sudden into level two.  And taking over the PTA, then running for school board…this doesn’t provide balance and relief; this adds to the problem.  Just say no, and work diligently to develop equanimity about the fact that you could do a much better job than the idiots currently doing it.

Think Character, Not Function.  I had the great fortune to work in a university department that had an odd attitude.  They were arrogant enough to believe that there was no place that one could learn to do the department’s work except the department itself.  Believing this, they never thought to do what employers normally do, which is to seek people in terms of the function they will perform.  Our department, instead, sought persons of a certain character.

Moreover, the department took the task of developing faculty to be the task of developing character.  I was expected to learn the substance of my job—health law (about which I knew nothing)—on my own.  There would be no functional training.  The same was true of learning to teach (a mistake, they later came to realize).  Instead, the focus in development was on teaching the values and policies of the organization and in incorporating them into day-to-day work.  As important as learning health law was learning to “be” an Institute of Government faculty member.  Policy became habit and habit became character.

My plea to “think character, not function” applies both to oneself, because the transition to level three never happens if we cling to the narrow rewards of being good at narrow tasks. (This is a definition, I think, of always staying in one’s “comfort zone.”).  But it also applies to subordinates, peers, and even bosses.

Of course, business organizations can’t dispense entirely with teaching task work, but they commonly give way too much attention to it.

Recognize the Situation. Face Reality.  In my view, nobody can manage this for you.  Nothing can substitute for a clear-eyed look at your own feelings, your own heart, your own dreams, your own strengths, fears, weaknesses, and doubts.  As the philosopher says, “Know thyself.”

Think Seriously about Bailing Out.  Doesn’t everybody have a favorite fantasy about a simpler life?  This path comes highly recommended.  A favorite recommendation of mine comes from Henry David Thoreau, who noted in Walden that the majority of men lead lives of quiet desperation.  The remedy, to his mind, was “Simplify, simplify.”

Thoreau, long before going to Walden Pond, had decided not to join the family pencil business.  He maintained that going to Walden was not a withdrawal from life, but a commitment to seeing himself and life clearly, without the distractions of society.  I’m wondering, he having gone to Walden and written about it, whether I might instead go to the pencil factory and still come to see myself and life clearly in the company of society.  So I did.

Conclusion, or “Easy to Say, Hard to Do.”  These suggestions may seem helpful, but they are only a start.  I think this is the outline of a powerful approach, but I’m not quite sure how to actually do most of these things, let alone instruct others.  But, I’m hopeful some folks might be intrigued with this and help me out.  But first I’ve got some filing to do.


Jeff Koeze is the owner of Koeze Co, a fourth generation fancy food manufacturer and provider located in Grand Rapids, MI.  Before entering the business world he was an Associate Professor of Public Law and Government at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Government.  He was educated at UNC and the law school at the University of Virginia.

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Page last modified May 3, 2017